LDS Leak: The Morality of Mormon Money
Recently leaked information has revealed that general authorities for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) are paid $120,000 annually. The leaked information has sparked much interest and debate within Mormon circles. The 100-plus general authorities serve full time and often begin their service in their 40s or 50s, leaving a career behind. The salaries, officially called living allowances, of general authorities are considered problematic for several reasons. It is my hope that the ongoing discussions sparked by this leak will not only encourage more transparency, but also changes in LDS salary policies.
Many Mormons are concerned about the disconnect between LDS Church narratives and reality. This troubling pattern has been exasperated in recent years by the pervasiveness of the internet. The Gospel Topics essays have begun the process of harmonizing what the LDS Church teaches and what actually happened in the past—focusing on topics such as polygamy, accounts of the first vision, race and the priesthood, and the translation of the Book of Mormon. The recently revealed salary information now highlights a new topic.
Despite a reference to the general authority’s “modest living allowance” made by President Hinckley in the 1980’s, the LDS Church has long taught that it does not have a paid clergy. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon taught this principle as a moral issue. Having an unpaid clergy is often highlighted by Mormons as a significant difference between Mormonism and other Christian churches. Clergy are indeed volunteer for the vast majority of those serving in the LDS Church (Bishops, Stake Presidents) but 89 general authorities are paid to minister. If Mission presidents are included, information regarding their financial support was leaked a few years ago, the number rises to over 500. The Church cannot honestly claim that there are no paid clergy when there, in fact, are. The fact that the Church has had to change so many of its core narratives threatens to erode its legitimacy in the eyes of its members.
The amount that general authorities are paid is also problematic. Most general authorities reside in Utah near Salt Lake City, which has a relatively low cost of living compared to other regions of the United States. A $120,000 paycheck is over double the average household income in both Utah and the United States. Many have scoffed at the figure suggesting that it is not a big deal. This demonstrates several problems. The Church’s thinking is too centered on the United States. The Church is a global one, with many members living in poverty in places like Central America and West Africa.
The Liahona Children’s foundation estimated that as of 2014 over 120,000 Mormon children are malnourished. The Church does have a well-functioning program that addresses members in need, but given the high salary of General authorities one must ask whether the LDS Church could do more to help the poor. Cutting down the salary of general authorities to $60,000—slightly more than the US household median—would free up over $5 million, which happens to be almost the amount needed to feed the 120,000 malnourished Mormon children.
Some have noted that many general authorities leave behind lucrative careers to serve. This may be true, but the use of this argument also highlights disconnect between the LDS Church policies and the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. The disciples of Jesus left behind everything to become fishers of men. Money was to be rendered to Caesar and it was taught that it is harder for a rich man to enter into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Becoming a full time disciple of Christ should not be a path to wealth and prosperity.
The salary leak also raises concerns about who is getting paid. If it is acceptable to pay for ministering, then why are the general authorities the only ones who receive a living allowance? Auxiliary leaders, who serve for a five year term as opposed to the longer calls of general authorities, do not collect a paycheck. During those five years auxiliary leaders travel the globe and have a work load similar to a general authority’s. This includes the top women leaders in the primary, young women, and relief society presidencies. This needlessly reinforces the perceptions of gender inequality that already exist in the LDS Church.
The most controversial topic lies within the lower levels of clergy: why shouldn’t a bishop be paid? The moral argument has been tabled because the Church does have paid clergy. In many respects it would be better if they were paid. Bishops usually serve in addition to a full time job and family responsibilities, leaving them notoriously overworked. This can have a negative impact on the bishop’s family relations, his employment, or his ministry. If Bishops were paid they could devote more of their time to their service. Better training could then be implemented regarding topics such as sexual abuse and counseling.
It is likely the news that top Mormon leaders make $120,000 will be shrugged off and soon forgotten. However, for an institution that claims to be Christ’s true Church and for its members striving for perfection, this issue should cause concern. The biggest threat to the church is not the past or present policies but rather the eroding legitimacy of the institution in the eyes of members. The best strategy to counter this is to preempt the next leak with a new policy of transparency. Honesty really is the best policy.